As imaginative as the creative process it documents, “A Dog Called Money” is a uniquely intimate journey through the inspiration, writing and recording of a PJ Harvey record. A Coda Cornerstone Collection.
Goddess, guerrilla, guitar-slinger. Singer, songwriter, sorceress. Sculptor, poet, performer. Polly Jean Harvey’s arrival on American shores in 1992 with her power trio PJ Harvey startled everyone — a siren call into a tantalizingly deep, dark vision, potently punk and powerfully female. Over nearly three decades and a dozen albums, she’s morphed from electric blues-infused upstart to authoritative rock stateswoman, but has never strayed from an uncompromising artistic core, and a talent for surprise.
An androgynous British fireball singing of revenge and lust, at 22, Harvey wrangled her amplified six-string like a weapon on the ferocious “Dress” and “Sheela-Na-Gig” (on her debut “Dry”), the latter a fervent incantation summoning a Celtic fertility goddess for strength in the face of abuse. Her upending of gender and genre norms continued with 1993 noisefest “Rid of Me”; Harvey turned the title track’s commanding refrain “lick my legs I’m on fire” into a brazen femme-power singalong.
Onstage, Harvey transformed from ragtag punk to uber-glam show-woman, a la shimmering cocktail dresses, high heels, bright-blue eyeshadow and fire-engine-red lips.
Dispensing with her group, she started anew with the 1995 breakthrough “To Bring You My Love,” enlisting U2 producer Flood, Nick Cave bandmate Mick Harvey and guitarist John Parish, with whom she’d played sax and guitar in his 1980s combo Automatic Dlamini. To embark on her solo career, Harvey left London for her rural hometown and spent months alone in a Dorset cottage crafting more complex songs. She expanded her vocal style, employing restraint, adding crooning and purring to her palette. Organ, horns, strings, synths and vibraphone accompanied new levels of drama. Onstage, Harvey transformed from ragtag punk to uber-glam show-woman, a la shimmering cocktail dresses, high heels, bright-blue eyeshadow and fire-engine-red lips. Personal politics, biblical allusions and fractured fables informed songs like the haunting, essentially guitar-free “Down by the Water.”
Seeing Harvey perform at New York’s Roseland Ballroom around this time convinced our female team at Rolling Stone Press to put her on the cover of “Trouble Girls: The Rolling Stone Book of Women in Rock” (1997), a 58-chapter history. The book’s editor, Barbara O’Dair, wrote that “by taking sonic risks…shaping combustible material to her will, and dipping back to retrofit rock’s old forms — particularly the blues — to her own thoroughly contemporary image, Harvey has ensured that the future has her name on it.”
Harvey has more than lived up to that promise, continually challenging expectations. “My biggest fear would be to replicate something I’ve done before,” she explained in 2010. Along the way, the former art student has become the only artist to pick up two prestigious Mercury Prizes in Britain, for the sweeping, New York-centric “Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea” (2000) and “Let England Shake” (2011). The latter exhibited her new focus on the United Kingdom’s history of warfare and imperialism. The boldly outspoken work, looking back to World War I, followed an introspective, piano-driven 2007 album, “White Chalk,” on which Harvey had used her most fragile soprano. On “Let England Shake,” she paints unsettling pictures of “Battleship Hill” and “The Words That Maketh Murder.”
As documented in “A Dog Called Money,” Harvey’s work continues its political focus, now with a global reach. The film both dissects her creative process making the 2016 album “Hope 6 Demolition Project,” and tracks her often-perilous journeys with Irish war photographer Seamus Murphy through devastation in Kosovo and Afghanistan, as well as Washington D.C.’s Anacostia neighborhood. (Hope VI is a HUD-sponsored project aimed at revitalizing U.S. urban housing projects, including controversial demolition, causing displacement of residents.) Murphy’s photographs also illustrate Harvey’s first book of poetry, “The Hollow of the Hand” (2015).
Joined in a pop-up studio by Flood and Parish, among other musical compadres, Harvey and company are watched by an on-site audience behind one-way glass in London’s Somerset House, as part of an art installation called “Recording in Progress.” Murphy’s camera catches an unself-conscious Harvey — back to her tomboy-cum-poet mode — working like a film director, leading and listening to her players. She plays stringed instruments, drums, keys, a huge bass harmonica and a hurdy-gurdy. Via D.A. Pennebaker-like cinema verite, we see songs come to life.
Harvey’s lyrics and song titles, derived from journals she kept while traveling from 2011 to 2014, reflect encounters with families searching for missing relatives, Syrian refugee children and religious gatherings as well as people’s resilience and struggles. Among the desolation and trauma Murphy and Harvey encounter, music shines through as a sustaining force of humanity, of grace.
Just as Harvey put her own spin on such childhood influences as Captain Beefheart and Robert Johnson, she now absorbs the music of other cultures. She is the sole woman observing a group of men singing spiritual praises in Arabic. In the Black community of D.C.’s Anacostia, she witnesses an evangelical church service with transcendent gospel music, and is wowed by kids free-styling outside their housing project. Conversations on D.C.’s mean streets and gospel harmonies follow her back to the studio; she enlists African-American choir members to add transatlantic vocals to tracks.
As the album unfolds, Harvey’s passion and purpose shine. The film allows us to see her collaborative spirit as well as take-charge artistic leadership. She has developed her own “Community of Hope” — inspired by those in far-flung places — which she invites us to join.
Holly George-Warren is a two-time Grammy nominee and the award-winning author of 16 books, including “Janis: Her Life and Music”; “A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton”; and “Public Cowboy #1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry.” She has written for numerous publications, including The New York Times, Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly. As director of Rolling Stone Press, she edited such books as “The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll,” “The Rolling Stone Album Guide” and “The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll.” She has served as a producer on the documentary films “Muscle Shoals,” “Nashville 2.0” and “Hitmakers,” among others.